Maine Roots

A blog about all things Maine


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Weekly Recipe: Fran’s French Lasagna

It’s no secret that I love pasta dishes.  This likely goes hand-in-hand with how much I love sauces – creamy, rich white sauces, flavorful, zesty red sauces, the truly spectacular “Zax Sauce” from the fast food chain Zaxby’s (tragically impossible to find in the Northeast)…  and I could go on.  But today our focus is pasta.  While Nick periodically needs to remind me that he might like something other than pasta multiple nights each week, he does love lasagna.  When I originally came across this recipe more than a year ago, it seemed like an appealing alternative to traditional lasagna.  And it is!

This recipe feeds 10-12 hungry skiers, and that’s no joke.  I halved it for our purposes, and it was still a big lasagna.

LOTS of ingredients...

LOTS of ingredients…

You’ll need:

  • 6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  •  2 packages frozen chopped spinach
  • 1/2 lb. mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 2 cups ricotta cheese
  • 1/2 lb. grated / shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 1/2 lb. grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 cans cream of mushroom soup
  • 2 cups sour cream
  • 1 package lasagna noodles
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1/2 stick butter
  • 1 bottle cheap white wine
  • 2 eggs

Poach chicken for 45-60 minutes in white wine.  Cool and tear into bite-size pieces.  Cook spinach and drain well.  Saute onions, mushrooms, and garlic in the butter, then combine with the spinach.  Grate or mix mozzarella and Parmesan cheese together.  Blend ricotta and eggs.  Blend soup and sour cream together over low heat.  Cook lasagna noodles and drain (or use oven-ready noodles,  as I did).

Layer away!

Layer away!

Layer in a large rectangular baking pan in the following order: soup mixture, noodles, chicken, spinach mixture, ricotta mixture and grated cheeses.  Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 1 hour, 30 minutes covered, 30 minutes uncovered.

A few candid notes: while I loved the results of this recipe and they are worth the work, I’d clearly forgotten how labor-intensive this meal is.  First: it takes a long time.  About two to two and a half hours between poaching the chicken, assembling the lasagna, and baking it.  Second: it creates a ton of dishes.  As you may have noted in reading the recipe, many of the ingredients are layered separately, which means you end up with multiple dirty bowls and pots.  I confess, I finished assembling, popped the lasagna in the oven, and turned to the sink with despair to begin washing the mountain that had accumulated.

I will absolutely make this dish again, but here are my tips to cut back on time and mess: buy a rotisserie chicken and pull your bite size pieces from that.  It will save time by eliminating the poaching process, and the meat will be tender, juicy, and flavorful.  The next thing I’d do is combine more of the ingredients so there are fewer layers and fewer dishes.  It’s a lasagna anyway – when you’re cutting it apart and eating it, the pretty, painstaking layers are no longer recognizable.  Specifically: add the ricotta and eggs to the soup and sour cream.  You could even take it a step further and combine the ricotta, eggs, soup, sour cream, and spinach and mushroom mixture.  This would eliminate multiple pots and dishes, and leave you with three main layers: the mixture, the noodles, and the chicken, to be topped with the grated cheese.

One closing tip: if you’re using oven-ready lasagna noodles, as I did, I’d suggest adding a 1/2 cup of either water or white wine or a combination of both over the top of the lasagna before baking for moisture.

This recipe produces delicious and filling results.  Please don’t let the steps and recommendations intimidate you – modify as I suggest, open a bottle of white wine (for drinking!), and enjoy!

Not pretty, but delish!

Not pretty, but delish!


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A Cozy Caffeine Fix at Coffee by Design

I’m opening this post with my punch line right up front: Coffee by Design served up the prettiest dang cup of coffee I have ever seen.  I mean, really, take a look at this image of brewed perfection:

One lovely, photogenic caramel latte

One lovely, photogenic caramel latte

Oh, and it was delicious, too.

Admittedly, I’m far from a coffee aficionado.  I first began drinking coffee regularly at my first job, which stocked only regular old Folgers and perhaps even more appallingly, powdered creamer.  Sorry, but that stuff is disgusting.  Now I’d give serious consideration to drinking my coffee black before using it, and I’m a “I’ll-have-a-little-coffee-with-that-milk” kinda girl.

Incredibly, this taste-bud-offending introduction to coffee did not deter my venture into the benefits of the caffeinated state, and I’ve gone on to have many more coffee experiences – most good, a few less appealing.  Perhaps I have a much greater appreciation for good coffee now than I would have without that introduction.  For example, I recall my first Starbucks Vanilla Latte with glee.  My eyes were opened to an entirely new world of possibilities.

Our Coffee by Design experience was enjoyable from beginning to end.  We spent about an hour in the Diamond Street location before it was time for Nick and me to go to the Portland International Jetport for our return to Georgia (and warmth, and no snow – it has pros and cons).

Display and merchandise area

Display and merchandise area

Coffee by Design touts themselves as creating ‘handcrafted, micro roasted coffee,’ and I’d concur that the micro roasting of coffee delivers the same value we all associate with micro brewing (uh oh, I’m sounding a bit like a coffee snob).  Their location at Diamond Street is also a roastery, and large glass doors give the patrons a view from the coffee bar space into the micro roastery, where large steel tanks also call to mind microbrew tours.  There is something surprisingly beautiful and striking about clean, industrial spaces like this one.

While waiting for our coffees to be ready, both my husband and I wandered the space, enjoying the various pieces of art and the many posted anecdotes regarding the owners’ journeys to discovering the best of coffee (check out their “Travel to Origin” and “History” sections for more insight).  These images and descriptions were my favorite part of the decor – it humanized the business and made the owners (and staff’s) commitment to crafting superior coffees very evident.  Although I haven’t been to their other locations, I hope they also include these interesting stories that reinforce the business’s commitment to economic and social sustainability.

photo 2

While the latte was excellent and the atmosphere and decor attractive and welcoming, certainly the most special part of the hour or so spent in the coffee bar was the time it gave my family to simply visit.  We grabbed a table in the back corner, surrounded by four comfy leather chairs, and spent the remaining minutes before our flight talking, planning our summer vacation in the Sebago Lakes Region, and sharing new insights gleaned from the various Maine-based magazines scattered around – Down East (of course), Maine Home+Design, and more.  I left with a strong appreciation for the time and space we had the opportunity to enjoy there.

Coffee by Design is an impressive and admirable business.  Their story reflects the many special characteristics I’ve come to associate with Maine and the people who live there: a commitment to honesty, to doing the right things in the right way, and supporting other businesses, both local and international, who also uphold these values.

Go in and get a cup!  Or for Mainers far from home like me, visit the online shop.


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A Taste of the South: Salvage BBQ

I have fond memories of my introduction to pulled pork barbecue – at a friend’s home just months after beginning college.  Before making the trek south to go to Clemson, the word barbecue was a fairly ambiguous part of my vocabulary – we applied it to virtually any party where the cooking took place outdoors.  The meal itself had little to do with the label.

It didn’t take long to learn that “barbecue” means something different – something specific – in the Southland.  It is a term applied to varieties of smoked meat, and often specifically pulled (or chopped) pork.  If you invite someone from the South to a “barbecue” and serve hamburgers and hot dogs, you should be prepared for dismay (and disappointment).

Having lived down South for a decade now, I’ve had the opportunity and the pleasure to try some pretty outstanding barbecue, home cooked and in restaurants.  As anyone who’s had really great barbecue can attest, the memory of that flavor stays with you – it’s sinfully good with flashes of heat and sweetness, and not too bad for you (until you add the bread, hush puppies, and mac ‘n’ cheese – but what would good ‘cue be without these sides?).  Specific culinary experiences come to mind when I think of barbecue.  For example, truly outstanding ribs served in the Blues City Cafe in Memphis, Tennessee.  A juicy, flavorful pulled pork sandwich at Lexington Barbecue in North Carolina.  And one very memorable beef brisket – at Salvage BBQ in Portland, Maine.

The anticipation!

The anticipation!

Maine, you ask?  Yes, indeed. When Salvage BBQ burst onto the Portland dining scene about a year and a half ago, the buzz was big.  From my perspective, they drove an effective social media campaign that leveraged the existing foodie culture and awareness in Portland, and most importantly of all – they were differentiated.  Salvage BBQ was offering something to the area that was new – no white tablecloths and perfectly seared scallops – but scarred wooden tables and meat you can (mostly) eat with your fingers.

The atmosphere is reflective of barbecue places down South  – perhaps unsurprising as the owners journeyed through North Carolina and Texas in search of inspiration before returning home to bring the goodness of barbecue to Maine (http://www.salvagebbq.com/). They are a self-service style restaurant, very common down South, where you order at the counter and the food is brought to you at your table (or you can sit and order at the bar).  This is a place where families can come to relax with minimal worry about their children breaking anything or bothering anyone, given that it’s typically already quite noisy and very casual; or where friends can gather to grab a beer, share a meal, and listen to regular live music acts.

Eat, drink, listen!

Eat, drink, listen!

And then there’s the food.  When we went, I wanted to try a little bit of everything, so we ordered the “Meat Coma” (yes, that’s really what it’s called), which includes a 1/4 rack of pork ribs, 1/3 lb. brisket and chopped pork, and a cup of chili.  Don’t worry, big eaters – there is also the “Meat Fatality” if that’s not enough for you.  They offer multiple barbecue sauces on each table – a more traditional barbecue sauce and a thinner, vinegar-based barbecue sauce that’s very popular in the Carolinas.

I have nothing but good things to say about the food.  I’ve already mentioned the brisket, which I could frankly wax poetic about.  It is head and shoulders above any other brisket I’ve eaten at a restaurant, and Nick and I enjoy smoking brisket at home, too.  We now have new aspirations for our next smoking venture!  Moving on to the other meats: while I prefer beef ribs to pork, the ribs were exceptional in flavor and texture, and the chopped pork rivaled any you’d find in the Carolinas (the vinegar-based sauce is a must-try, everyone).  Candidly, I don’t believe we had a single green veggie on our plate, as our sides were potato wedges, mac and cheese, and hush puppies.  My mom really loves those hush puppies, and for my weakness, the potato wedges were deliciously, fabulously salty.  What could be better?

If you haven’t visited already (and you’re not a vegetarian), what are you waiting for?  The barbecue is really something special at Salvage, and once you’ve factored in the appealing, rustic design and the low-key (but high quality) atmosphere, this is a dining win.

And in the end, our meal lived up to its name – we were all in a coma – and in bed, very early that night!

Salvage BBQ
919 Congress Street
Portland, ME
207-553-2100

 

 


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Maine and Loire: Shop Wine the Natural Way

It is a nearly universally accepted truth that wine is intimidating.  Even now, as someone who knows a fair amount about wine and someone who certainly knows what she likes in a wine, I am apprehensive about engaging in conversations with another person who “appears” to be quite well-versed in the language of wine.  It’s human nature to want to be right and to be perceived as knowledgeable – and let’s face it, wine is just hard to know.  There are so many varietals, and the same varietal may be called one name when grown in one region, and another when grown somewhere else.  Add in labels in French, Italian, German, and heck, even English – and you’ve got an awful lot of ways that people can feel, well, ignorant.

The label says it all.

The label says it all.

But here’s one thing you can know: when you shop at Portland’s newest wine shop, Maine & Loire, no matter what bottle you buy, you’re getting a low intervention wine.  So what does that mean, and why does it matter?  Fundamentally, this approach is based in the belief that the entire process of making wine must be rooted in respect for the land (terroir) and the natural development of quality grapes into quality wine.  In layman’s terms, it means chemicals aren’t applied in the vineyard (or very minimally), it means the grapes are cared for and harvested by hand, natural fermentation is allowed to take place (no manually added yeast), and it means the aging and preserving process is impacted as minimally as possible by additions like sulfites, which occur naturally in wine and are often added as a preserving measure.

It was this last item that excited my husband, Nick, the most.  The morning after he and my dad consumed an entire bottle of Pinot Noir, purchased during our visit to Maine & Loire, he enthused, “And I don’t even have a headache!”  What a proud moment.

While the emphasis on terroir driven, low-intervention, and natural and organic wines sets Maine & Loire apart as a shop, there is no question that it is the welcoming, knowledgeable owners who make it come to life.  As they say on their website, they celebrate wines that are “alive and soulful,” and believe firmly in only selling those wines they also love.  Their recommendations come from the heart in addition to a wealth of research.  As Peter said, “what you see in the store represents more than a year of research.”  For impact’s sake, I have chosen to interpret this to mean an entire year’s worth of hours – 8,760 (but perhaps I’m being too literal).  Regardless, a great deal of time, energy, and care has gone into the selection they present in their bright, industrial space.

 

Labeled shelves and plenty of open space make for easy browsing.

Labeled shelves and plenty of open space make for easy browsing.

If you’re on the fence about visiting, you shouldn’t be.  Check them out (and scoot next door to Maine Mead Works while you’re at it) at 63 Washington Ave, Portland, Maine.  In fact, they have their first tasting coming up next Saturday, January 31st from 2pm – 5pm.  My number one recommendation when you visit: talk to Peter and Orenda, the owners.  Get their guidance and recommendations – and don’t be intimidated by the labels and languages.  Wine is meant to be enjoyed first – only discuss it if you want to.

As Maine & Loire’s site says, drink more wine!

 


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Weekly Recipe: Creamy Seafood Pasta

It may come as a surprise to learn that I wasn’t always particularly thoughtful about, or interested in, food and its preparation.  As you read my weekly (okay, sometimes bi-monthly) recipes and other various compositions about meals, sourcing food locally, and healthy eating, it likely seems that I’ve been immersed in the culinary and agricultural landscapes for most of my life – and perhaps the seeds were indeed there – but in truth, I didn’t cook at all until I was in my early twenties.

I can pinpoint landmark memories throughout my culinary journey: unwillingly participating in caring for our family vegetable garden as a child; making chocolate chip cookies (and a mess) in my best friends’ kitchen as a teen; watching a close college friend prepare spaghetti sauce, and admittedly feeling somewhat inadequate because I had no idea how to do that myself.

Now, with the clarity of hindsight, I can see the hints of interest and enjoyment were there all along.  They just needed a little time and aging, like a fine wine.  It’s been about five years since the moment it dawned on me that I truly enjoy cooking.  That I actually found pleasure – and relaxation – in the process of chopping, mixing, sauteing, baking, serving.

It was during a time in my professional career when I was struggling – unhappy in a job that was extraordinarily stressful and emotionally taxing – and I didn’t have much energy or enthusiasm when I got home at night.  Despite this – or maybe even because of it – one night I decided to go rogue (meaning no recipe, unheard of for me in those days), and just throw a pasta dish together.  Undoubtedly, my courage was bolstered by the glass of Chardonnay I’d already consumed.

A short time later, chopped onion and garlic were sauteing in butter, mussels (admittedly, from a frozen package) had been added, and I boldly decided I could sacrifice some of my wine for the betterment of the sauce.  In the end, the only “healthy” part of that meal was probably the whole wheat penne (and not the half-stick of butter in the sauce), but it was tasty – and more importantly, it was fun.  The recipe I share today is another from the Vaughn kitchen – an evolved version of this very first experiment.  It serves 2-4, depending on how much seafood and pasta you make.

You’ll need:

  • 3 tablespoons butter (or a combination of butter and olive oil)
  • 1/2 yellow onion, chopped or diced
  • 1 cup portabello mushrooms, finely chopped (optional)
  • 1 glove garlic, minced
  • 1/2 lb – 1 lb Raw seafood of your choice (I like a mix of scallops, or bay scallops, and shrimp)
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream (or milk or half-and-half to cut calories and fat)
  • Pasta of your choice (I often use whole wheat penne)
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Set water to boil and cook pasta per package directions.

Chop chop!

Chop chop!

Melt butter over medium heat and add onion.  Saute briefly before adding mushrooms and garlic.  Saute until onion is soft and mushrooms are brown.  I typically toss in a splash of the white wine at this point (it creates such a fun sizzle in the pan!), and then I add the seafood, slowly incorporating the remainder of the wine as the seafood cooks.  Finish by stirring in the heavy cream, and season to taste.  Combine with pasta and serve.

Yum!  This is a favorite at our house.

Yum! This is a favorite at our house.

This is a recipe to adjust to your tastes – in fact, I’m not sure that my 1/2 cup wine, 1/4 cup cream measurements are entirely accurate, because I rarely measure them.  I pour an amount that feels right, then taste the sauce and adjust quantities accordingly.  You could easily add a combination of cheeses, like asiago and parmesan, for a thicker, cheesy sauce.  I’ve included veggies ranging from broccoli to spinach or kale at times (this is so I can pretend my cream sauce is “healthy”).

I hope you enjoy this recipe, if you try it.  I also hope you learn to experiment on your own, if you don’t already.  For me, it transformed meal preparation from a task that was necessary to survival to an opportunity to focus on creating (and leave all that work stress behind).

 


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Handling Holiday Leftovers

Ahh, the holidays.  This joyful time of year when the air is practically tinged with excitement and merriment; when our time is filled with gatherings of friends and family; and when the tables are literally groaning under the weight of holiday ham, turkey, butter-laden vegetables, and rich desserts.

Our Thanksgiving table for two!

Our Thanksgiving table for two!

After we stagger from the table and clean up commences, my thoughts always shift to handling the leftovers.  Some solutions are readily available (leftover mashed potatoes?  Corn?  Add some ground meat and it’s shepherd’s pie to the rescue!) while others require some research.  Because I really hate letting any food go to waste, I tend to diligently search for recipes and improvise as needed until the turkey, ham, beef, and leftover sides have been incorporated into casseroles, soups, and sandwiches.  Your freezer is your best friend in this case – soon to be happily stocked with meals for future winter nights.

The following recipes were winners in our house – from various sources.  I hope they help you make the most of your Christmas leftovers!

Roast Turkey and Prosciutto Pizza
Nick and I really enjoyed this pizza after Thanksgiving.  It jazzes up turkey after a few days when the kiddos are sick of leftovers.  The downside: it doesn’t really use up that much turkey.

White Bean and Turkey Chili
A flavorful turkey chili that serves a soccer team!

Ham and Scalloped Potatoes
Uses two leftovers!  I’d happily add peas, green beans, or other leftover veggies for a well-rounded, single-dish meal.

Creamy Pasta with Ham and Asparagus
As a pasta lover, this dish was a shoo-in.

Wild Rice and Ham Chowder
I haven’t made this one, but it sounds like an ideal winter comfort food – and it uses potatoes, carrots, parsley, and other ingredients that are likely to be lingering.

On this Christmas, I hope you are celebrating with friends and family and feel surrounded by love and peace.  Happy holidays from Maine Roots… and happy holiday leftover-ing!


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Honey I’m…. Drinking Mead?

With some regularity, my husband arrives home to find me enjoying a glass of wine.  Chalk it up to work stress if you like (some days I do), or it could just be because people everywhere have enjoyed fermented beverages for a long, long time – and I’m no exception.  While the atmosphere, decor, and dress may have changed over the centuries, people like to gather together and enjoy food, drink, and entertainment.  Today we indulge in a variety of settings – a casual beer with friends at the local watering hole, or a wine tasting party at someone’s home, or checking out the hot new martini bar (although in the interest of transparency, that won’t be me – not a martini gal, I’ve discovered).  I’d encourage you all to add a mead tasting to your list of must-try alcoholic experiences.

In fact, mead is considered the ancestor of all modern fermented drinks.  Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, to see the popularity of modern day mead growing, with meaderies following rapidly in the footsteps of wineries and breweries to take advantage of the rising interest in their product and the art and science behind it.

Last year, I wrote about Far Friar’s Meadery, located in Newcastle, Maine, and this year during my visit to Maine, I had the opportunity to visit Maine Mead Works for the first time.  Located on Washington Ave in Portland, it’s easily accessible for both tourists and locals.  Founded in 2007 by owners Ben Alexander and Carly Cope, Maine Mead Works uses Maine ingredients (as much as possible) and also leverages good ol’ Mainah wisdom – that handcrafted is better than mass-produced, and quality is better than quantity (hence their small batch approach).

Maine Mead Works

We had the opportunity to try a large number of traditional and flavored meads during our visit, as well as a few sparkling versions.  Maine Mead Works emphasizes crafting a modern mead that is dry, crisp, and has a balanced finish.  Like Fat Friar’s mead, the more traditional dry and semi-sweet meads carried strong honey notes on the nose.  As I’ve become more familiar with mead, I find I can also appreciate it more.  I enjoyed the dry mead, but I liked the flavored varieties best of all.  From my perspective, honey mead creates an ideal base from which to add flavors like lavender, strawberry, and cranberry, as Maine Mead does.  I could easily envision a summer afternoon on the deck, enjoying a chilled glass of the strawberry or lavender mead, while cranberry was clearly a holiday season indulgence.

In conclusion, a visit to Maine Mead Works is highly recommended.  While we weren’t able to stay for the facility tour, I’m sure that would be well-worth experiencing as well.  You can also check out their cocktail recipes page for fun ways to mix with mead.

Happy holidays, all!